The city of Pansey, capital and namesake of the Pansean Empire, was known as the heart of the World. Amidst its tall towers and cobbled streets, ruins of past centuries lingered around corners, reminders of the Empireʼs long and storied history. Around them, a new age of art, science, and learning had dawned, bringing with it marvels in steam-powered technology and numerous immigrants seeking a new life among the spires and machines of Pansey.
They flocked to the suddenly expanding factories, operating and building the machines that powered this new era. They filled in new buildings that pushed the edges of the city back further and further, dragging the cobblestone streets and neat, recently-built apartments of brick, wood, and stone, out into land that had once, just at the edges of recent memory, overrun by wild trees and twisting plants and hounded by beasts that had once, in old histories, preyed upon the Empireʼs citizens. Now, the hunting beasts were of a different sort: men from the gutters of the empire, whether from faraway ports or the darker corners of Greater Pansea, men who were no better than the beasts they had replaced, for they were cruel and simple creatures with no vision or ambition.
The back-streets of Pansey, full of strangers and criminals, were not the heart of the World. That title belonged to the core of the city, the oldest part of it that spread around the Imperial Palace like rays off of the sun at midday, illuminating all around it and bringing the Empire forth from the darkness of ignorance. It was the old city that held the great temples to the High Father, ones that were historical treasures and ones that were more modern, but no less graceful in their forms or less honorable in their functions. The old city was also home to the great and famous Imperial University, which housed and educated the greatest minds of the Empire, no matter from whence therein they came, in the name of Progress and Enlightenment, the twin Patrons of this glorious new age.
Yes, the heart of the World was the heart of the Empire, and it was thriving. None who saw it could possibly say otherwise. Sometimes it was easy to gaze upon the resplendent wonders of the new age in the old city and forget what called forth the steam that powered this burning, living machineʼs heart. It was easy to forget what darkness lurked just beyond the temple spires and University bell-towers and the nearly-completed great glass Exhibition Hall, for the darkness was as a world onto itself. It was the domain of criminal kings and hounds of the law who, when they stepped into the world of light, seemed to leave darker footprints in their wake.
The midday sun shone brightly upon the Imperial University, making the faces of the clocks in the bell-towers gleam almost blindingly. The paths the students walked were holy, as holy as those of any great temple, for this was a shrine to Learning. And oh! The learning that was being done here. The workings of the world were unraveled, the laws of the universe were challenged, history was decoded and brought nearly to life, and every second, every moment burned with the furious intensity of their quest for what was yet undiscovered.
It was beautiful. Luccian Mulli, Head Professor of Mathematics took a deep breath of fresh spring air. He was so rarely out of doors that the moment was even more precious. Yet he could hardly bring himself to regret it. His theory was taking up more and more of his time, but it was finally nearing a conclusion. A breathtaking, amazing, completely new conclusion that Head Professor Mulli could hardly bring himself to consider. It would change the world, change how everyone saw everything around them. It would bring the Empireʼs academics one step closer to those ancient truths that had been eluding them for so long…
Mulli closed his gray-blue eyes for a moment and let himself drift in this excited euphoria. The culmination of his lifeʼs work was upon him. This year. This would be the year.
The girlʼs voice dragged him back to the world of living, breathing people rather than abstract concepts. His little girl. His little Claria was calling him. He opened his eyes, and for a brief moment felt like he was watching her from far away. She was a young woman already, tall and dark and beautiful like her mother, with thick, curly hair that was so dark it was almost black, such a sharp contrast to his own thin, graying auburn hair. Her nut-brown skin was smooth, and her eyes were more gray than blue. He was glad she took after her mother.
“Yes, my dear?” She came by so rarely now. He supposed it was to be expected; she was an adult with her own life. Friends, he supposed, other young women who also styled their hair in loose, high buns and wore high-heeled, closed-toed shoes, just like her. He imagined that they met and talked about… well, he knew not what, but undoubtedly they met and talked and broke the hearts of the capitalʼs young men. Yes, that was surely the case. He smiled. She did not.
“I need to speak with you. Alone.” Were they not alone? A few students wandered by. He recognized them vaguely and waved, and one of them curtseyed in greeting. That pretty Panseyan girl with bright red hair, was she not a medical student? She looked rather like she was one. Oh well, he supposed they really were not alone. He dragged his mind back.
“Of course, Claria. We can speak in my office.”
Claria sighed and folded her arms over her chest, but she followed him indoors again. Her dress was deep purple and long, with a belt of soft fabric wrapped around her waist and tied in an uneven bow. He wondered if it was supposed to be uneven, like the red-haired medical studentʼs off- center, too-small hat. He closed the office door behind him, then turned to his daughter again with an uncertain smile. “What is the matter?”
“I am engaged to be married,” she said simply, and he wondered why she had insisted upon secrecy.
“Oh.” Was he glad? He was glad. He was happy for her. “Congratulations. To whom?”
She just shook her head in response and looked away. “I cannot tell you. Not yet.” She paused, looking at him with an expression he could not read, brows knitted and lips pursed. “Father…”
He wished, especially at times like this, that he could reach her across the gulf of time and disciplines and tame whatever worried her with cold logic and mathematical reason, but it was not to be. The girl, no, the young woman shook her head again.
“Never mind. It does not matter…” She smiled with her eyes shut, and he hoped it really did not matter. More likely, she just did not want to bring him her problems. Perhaps they were better suited to the other young ladies with crooked bows and done-up hair. “How goes the research?” she asked, abruptly.
“Splendidly, most splendidly!” This was something he could talk about for days on end, months on end, but he stopped himself. Claria had never cared much for his work, beyond being glad that he was happy doing it. She had studied literature, of all the disciplines in all the Empire, and was undoubtedly doing well for herself. “It shall be finished soon. It shall all be done with soon, and when it is, all of Pansea shall be changed!”
Claria smiled at him softly from across his office and a completely different plane of existence. He wanted to reach out to her, take her by the shoulders and show her the beauties of the universe that the ancients had understood and he, and through him all of Pansea, was soon going to grasp. But he knew it was futile. She sought a different type of beauty. And that was alright, in the end. He smiled gently and took her hand, so small and delicate, in both of his own.
“May the High Father grant you joy, Claria.”
Far away, outside the officeʼs dust- covered windows, in a world apart from either of theirs, bells began to ring on the hour.
The man in the dark coat smiled as he surveyed his domain. The capital was like two cities in one, placed one atop the other. In one, he was an honorable man, liked and respected, while in the other, he was the King of the Demons. What a silly appellation it was, but he supposed the masses had to have their fun. There was a good ring to it, at any rate, and in some professions appearances really were everything. He had no intention of arguing that.
There was an amused smirk on his face as he descended into the shadows, stepping onto a side street. He was perfectly at home here, just as at home as he was in an opera house or tipping his hat to some distinguished buffoon or another, and this world, this self he had created here, had some distinct advantages.
He followed the familiar route down one street, then down another, arriving at last before the seemingly dilapidated building that was his headquarters here. He had another half dozen scattered around this side of the city, and a few more among the majestic townhouses and manors of the more legitimate quarters. But this was the one he needed at the moment: a den of criminals and the Demons they served, the Demons who haunted the streets at night.
He adjusted his mask to make sure it covered his face, and then opened the door, and the men who saw him bowed low, as one did before kings and emperors. A wicked smirk spread across the face of the King of Demons as he gestured for them to rise.
“Good evening, my good gentlemen. We have work to do tonight.”
Maxine Janerka is a reporter and writer living in Maine. This is the opening of her novel, The Heart of the World. Her author page on Facebook is facebook.com/linnanyxmysteries